Book Review: In Cold Blood

 

In 1965 novelist Truman Capote attempted to write a “True Crime” novel, and the result is the brilliant but deeply flawed In Cold Blood, which recounts the gruesome 1959 murder of a family of four.

As a novelist he takes the material at hand, police reports, interviews, and psychological analyses, and weaves them together into a compelling narrative. He knows the reader is expecting a murder mystery, so he drops clues as if in the end it is going to work out like an Agatha Christi novel.  The victims, the Clutter family, very nearly embody what was (and in some places still is) the American ideal: hard working, successful, generous, pious and community oriented. But for all their goodness, the Clutters are not without their problems. Mrs. Clutter’s long, failing struggle with depression is an open secret. Though apparently a good and honest man, Mr. Clutter is obviously ambitious, and his nerves seem frayed, having lately taken up both smoking and a massive life insurance policy. Minor events and the normal tensions of family life seem sinister when seen in the light of the gruesome murder. Both the police and the reader sift the little information available for a link to the killers.

But the “clues” are not pieces of a puzzle to be solved. Every lead peters out into a mute question mark, open ended and unexplained,  for ultimately the deaths are senseless. As much as the police try to impose a rational narrative on the event, there is no link between the killers and the victims other than incredibly bad luck and a psychotic episode. It is an intrusion of chaos into a well ordered heartland town, whose citizens now find themselves locking their doors at night for the first time in their lives, and eyeing their neighbors with suspicion. If a life so well lived can end so brutally, it threatens not just to undermine the civic spirit but to throw everything into the abyss. One citizen says: “That family represented everything people around here really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it was like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless.”

The fact that the killers are men with serious emotional and mental imbalances further undermines the sense of order: are they even fit to stand trial? Does the legal distinction between a “sane”, “motivated” killing and an “insane”, “unmotivated” one make any sense at all? Is the state even remotely capable of doing justice to both the killers and the society it exists to defend? Of course, the debate on capital punishment in America goes around in the same cycles today that it has since the 19th century. The debate on the limits and grades of personal responsibility has gone on since Euripides.

And so the book flirts with nihilism, chaotic events undermining all human efforts at giving life a meaning. But flashes of a higher order still break through: When one of the murders finally gives a detailed account of the crime, it turns out that the Clutters, in spite of their terror, display the same honesty, goodness and fortitude that their neighbors had always attributed to them, up to the end. Chaos ended their lives, but it could not change who they were. Goodness makes subtle appearances in other corners of the novel: the crime is solved because one prisoner convinces another to share a secret and unburden his soul; old army buddy of one of the murderers tries to convince him that in spite of his crimes, he is still valuable in the eyes of God; a poor Indian hitchhikes over a thousand miles to testify on behalf of a friend; grieving friends and relatives of victim and killer alike learn to forgive, even to love.

Unfortunately Capote’s skill as a novelist nearly destroys the work. Since the murder was solved in the same way it was committed, by arbitrary strokes of luck, the only dramatic tension that remains for the reader is to learn exactly how the murders were carried out. That is, the big emotional payoff is the scene in which Ma, Pa, Jr. and (most importantly) a pretty teenage girl get their brains splattered on the wall. This is why Tom Wolfe labeled the book “porno-violence”, putting it in the same category as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the light the final orgy of violence, the author’s portrayal of the nobility of the victims in their struggle against chaos seems, at best, an attempt to placate his own guilty conscience than a statement about the human condition. At worst, Capote just realized that the prettier, sweeter, and more innocent the girl, the more some people will enjoy reading about her being terrorized and murdered in bed.

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